Terry Mergenthal

Waterhead
Panic attacks ran in their family, according to Finola. She’d had them regularly when she was a girl, and seemed proud of it. Her parents treated her with coffee enemas and whiskey shots and something called St. John’s Wort, never once thinking they might be the cause.
            “That’s the kind of crazy shit I grew up with,” she told her daughters when they were too young to appreciate the meaning of crazy shit. “You two don’t know how lucky you are.”
            Mae doesn’t feel lucky. She sits on her sister, Libby’s, bed and wonders if she’s having a panic attack now. She would like to ask if it makes your chest feel thick and soggy, like the clothes that sat in the tub of their broken washer that time, but Finola is in the ambulance with Libby, and Carl is following behind in the Sedona. Mae has been given strict orders not to use the phone or leave the house, except in an emergency. Another emergency, they mean.
            Last summer, in the cereal aisle at Whole Foods, the panic attack was in her stomach, behind her belly button. It lasted ninety seconds, exactly how long it took Finola to run back from the meat department.
            “A minute, damn it. I told you I would be a minute.”
            After Mae caught her breath, she mentioned that if her mother had actually said a minute, she would remember. She remembered song lyrics after hearing them once and could recite the words to over thirty TV commercials. Sometimes, when her parents thought she wasn’t listening, she would surprise them by repeating entire conversations.
            “I have an excellent memory,” Mae added, hoping this would count as an apology. They’d had to leave the groceries behind.
            “Then, remind me to go shopping by myself next time,” her mother said.
                                                                                                      
            Panic attacks went away once you knew the reason, also according to Finola. Mae knows the reason for hers. A no-brainer, Libby would call it. Libby liked to say that word, though technically it was two words. Likes to say it. The thing is, Mae needs to promise—no, swear—never to touch anything that belongs to her sister again.
            She rocks back and forth on the zebra quilt and thinks about the half-eaten chocolate bunny under the bed and the neon nail polish on the bureau and Jab, the stuffed porcupine she likes to pretend is real. She doesn’t want to think about the hardest thing, but she has to, because even after smoothing down the wrinkles on Libby’s bed and spitting out Libby’s gum, the pain is still inside her chest. The pain is the boy. It doesn’t matter that she saw him first; he’s made his choice. If Mae is serious about giving up all things Libby, she has to quit being in love with Spider McQueen.
            She’ll begin by throwing out the journal that describes everything about him, from the condition of his Chuck Taylor All-Stars (torn left shoelace, stained toecap) to the hunch of his shoulders when he walks to the bus stop. So much time has gone into logging these details that Mae’s handwriting has evolved from the shouting caps of a ten-year-old to the loopy script of a teenager. Her mother once used the word blossomed, though she was talking about Libby who, by the time she turned twelve, had a perky behind and attention-getting breasts. Mae believes her handwriting, as well as some hidden seed inside, has also bloomed.
            On Monday, she will request a seat change in homeroom, far from the one she now occupies behind Spider. She’ll miss breathing in his sweet mixture of French fries and cigarettes, but it will be a relief not to fight the temptation to put her hand on the spot where his back touches the chair. And if she gets Carl to drive her home from school, Spider can’t brush against her when they crowd onto the bus. Maybe he’ll get suspended again, and she won’t have to do anything. Maybe his father, a mean, excitable drunk, will make good on his threat to send Spider to live with relatives in Pittsburgh.
            Mae takes the bottle of nail polish out of her jeans pocket and places it next to the friendship bracelets on Libby’s dresser. The thing is, she is already keeping her promise. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, she’ll buy a new journal and fill it with the habits of salt-water turtles or the migration patterns of mosquitos. It will be spiral-bound and sturdy, with lined pages and a beige jacket. A color free of desire.
                                                                                                        
            Libby comes home on a hot April afternoon, unaware of Mae’s promise. She is also unaware of the weeks that have passed and the grief trapped in the house like a moth and her own sad, vegetative state. Her hair is knotted and dull, and her mouth hangs open in a half-smile, as if she is about to tell one of her brutally unfunny jokes. There is a transparency to her, as if the doctors have replaced her skin with the clear plastic Finola uses to wrap Mae’s sandwiches. Used to use. Mae buys her lunches at school now.
            “Can she hear us?” Mae asks the nurse, who is flicking her finger against a tube leading to the hole in Libby’s stomach.
            Finola answers before the nurse has a chance. “Of course she can.”
            Mae’s mother has changed since the accident. She now speaks in a pleasant drawl and clears her throat a lot. She eats sugar, lots of it, dipping a wet finger into the blue ceramic bowl next to the coffee pot. At night, she orbits impatiently through living room, dining room, kitchen, and back until, exhausted and weepy, she collapses on the sofa. She rarely washes her hair, just tames it into a messy bun and attaches a fake ponytail, which is not the color or texture of her real hair. It bounces cheerfully when she walks, at war with everything about her.
            “Libby hears us just fine,” Finola adds, fingering a glass-beaded rosary. “Is it Hail Mary, Mother of God, or Holy Mary? Carl? Do you know?”
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nbsp;       Mae’s stepfather squeezes Finola’s shoulder as if he’s about to deliver bad news. His rust-colored hair is leaking gray.
            “Let me think about that,” he says, but even Mae understands this is not the type of question you think about. You either know it, or you don’t.
            “Hail or Holy?” Finola asks again, sounding close to tears.
            “We’ll ask Birdie. She’ll know.”
            Birdie is Carl’s sister, the same sister Finola used to call the Hillbilly Bride of Jesus. Now, she phones her in the middle of the night to get advice on novenas.
            “Well, Birdie’s not here, is she? So I can’t exactly ask her.”
            Mae holds her breath.
            “We’ll call tonight,” Carl says, squeezing Finola’s shoulder again.
            But, Finola is fine. She’s not going to cry or go to bed with a headache or call Carl a worthless shit. Or tell Mae and Libby to play outside while she shows the guy from Baxter’s Pest Control the mouse droppings in her basement studio. And she’s not going to run off to some resort in the Poconos for a weekend because she’s exhausted and everyone in this house makes her nuts, and doesn’t she deserve a little time to herself? Well, doesn’t she? “Certainly,” Carl would always say. “Go. Have fun.”
            Derek Baxter used to come over all the time. Libby gushed over his black ponytail and perfect white teeth, but Mae was more interested in the thing he used to check wood for termites. He called it a harpoon, but it was actually a whale tooth duct-taped to the end of a wooden dowel. The tooth was an antique, stolen by his great-grandfather from a museum on the island of Tasmania, which (Mae had to tell him) was not a country, but a territory of Australia. It was rare and worth a fortune, and he could go to jail just for having it, so he made Mae promise never to tell anyone where it came from. She hoped he would let her ride in his truck one day, and use the spear on every wooden beam that looked suspicious. But, he stopped coming over after the accident.
            Everyone did. Bad luck was contagious, according to Finola.
            Mae watches a thick fluid flow down the feeding tube and emerge as sunny blue water in her sister’s head. A purple Koi, panting heavily, skitters to a stop behind Libby’s right eye.
            Mae tugs on her stepfather’s sleeve. “Who’s that?”
            Carl blocks her hand as she reaches for the tubing. “We talked about this,” he says. “What it would be like when Libby came home. How she would be different.”
            Mae points at two red-and-white Comets playing Whac-A-Mole in the folds of her sister’s cerebral cortex. “Who’s that?”
            The nurse, a tiny woman who seemed to delight in bending Libby into unnatural positions, clucks disapprovingly.
            “You know,” Carl whispers. It isn’t like Mae to forget all the things they’ve talked about while Finola was at the hospital. He offers up terms they studied, chants them like prayers—neocortex, temporal lobe, cerebellum—while his wife winds the rosary beads around her wrist. Wind, unwind, back and forth, until he has to look away. He has never known Finola to pray. They have not, in their eight years of marriage, ever discussed religion. That was probably unusual, but there are lots of things they haven’t discussed. This, for instance.
            “Don’t you remember, Sweetie?”
            Of course Mae remembers. She can talk for hours about the six spongy layers of the cerebral cortex, where the knot of personality can be unraveled by a few inches of rainwater. And how the brainstem can survive up to twenty minutes without oxygen and keep the body alive in a sort of waiting room, where it breathes and digests food and surprise! houses an aquarium. Carl never mentioned that.
            “Is she coming back?” Mae asks, when the Koi disappears behind an umbrella palm.
            Carl nods at his wife. “We’re praying.”
            Finola begins to cry, defeated by the number of prayers she will have to say. “It doesn’t work without the right words, Carl.”
            “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” the nurse says without looking up.
                                                                                                    
            “You can tell me, honey. I won’t get mad.”
            Finola says this so many times, in the middle of a sentence, during what passes for meals in their house, while adjusting her ponytail after a nap, that Mae hears the words in her sleep. Sometimes, it truly is a dream, and Libby explains everything on her behalf. Other times, her mother wakes her at night and begs for answers until Carl, his hair slanted cliff-like on the side of his head, leads his wife back to bed.
            Mae’s answer is always the same, uncharacteristically free of detail. Libby fell.
            “I know that,” Finola says, her voice peevish and beyond tired. “But how did it happen? Did you… I mean, did anyone—?”
            “It wasn’t my fault.”
            Carl takes over. “No one’s saying it was, sweetie. It’s just that your mother…” He looks at Finola. “We need to know what happened, that’s all. Was anyone with you? What about that kid who’s always hanging around? What’s his name?”
            His real name was Alan, which he hated. His mother called him Spider because he
liked to play in the crawl space beneath their house when he was little. She had other names for him, Batman and Mushroom and Bear, but that one stuck. It is one of a thousand facts written in a journal Mae can’t bear to throw away.
            “Think hard,” Finola tells her.
            Mae pretends to do just that, shutting her eyes and biting her lower lip.
            “Well?”
            “No one
,” she says and squeezes her fists, before the truth can spill out.
                                                                                                       
            At first, Mae is spooked by the sight of her sister propped up in bed, staring pleasantly at anyone who comes in her room. Old Libby would have rolled her eyes at the things being done to her. But Old Libby didn’t have a fishbowl for a head, complete with waltzing Tetras and a HI Fin shark and a dozen other species Mae is able to recognize because, years ago, her real father sat next to her on the edge of their pond and taught her their names.
            After weeks of seeing her sister unchanging and doll-like, Mae is no more frightened of Libby than she is of the vacuum cleaner. Her sameness lulls Mae into tempering her promise. She tries on things—a lapis pendant, the jumble of shoes in Libby’s closet—and no one tells her to stop. Her mother believes objects hold a kind of energy and tells anyone who will listen that this is Mae’s way of coping. Carl agrees, but only because he agrees with everything Finola says. He’s not sure what she’s talking about anymore. No one is.
            So Mae grows bolder. Clothes are tried on and abandoned, diary entries read,
items transferred from Libby’s felt-lined jewelry box to a corner of Mae’s closet. She’s pretty sure her sister, smiling stupidly and dressed in a nightgown too frilly for Old Libby, doesn’t mind.
            The day nurse, a tanned, chubby woman with small eyes, puts her hands on her hips. “Who said you could go through your sister’s things?”
            Mae points to a Shubunkin puffing on a cigar.
            The nurse leaves to tell Finola, because some things never change. Just to be safe, Mae hurriedly confesses her transgressions to Libby, who absolves her with a dainty fart.
            There is one thing Mae doesn’t confess. She sees Spider almost every day. They meet at the playground to talk about what happened, but never get around to it. Mae lets him put his hands wherever he wants, and it doesn’t matter if he calls her Libby by mistake. There is nothing he can do that will make her not love him. She longs to tell someone, to free what’s been held in her heart all these years, but the one and only time she brings up Spider, Libby’s fish take cover behind the ribbon grass, the feeding tube is dislodged, and it’s clear her sister has forgotten nothing.
                                                                                                        
            Mae waited for Libby to come out of their pond. She was staying under out of spite or embarrassment, or maybe to punish them. Mae and Spider had laughed when Libby swung at them and missed, throwing her body off balance. It was funny, Libby with her ballet lessons and perfect posture, falling into the water. So funny, Mae didn’t notice when Spider left. She sat on the wet grass, knowing that when Libby finally decided to come out, there would be tears and threats, and a bargain would be struck.
            Mae would promise not to tell what she’d caught her sister and Spider doing, and Libby would agree to be nicer. It wouldn’t last more than a few days, but still. Nice Libby was irresistible, a lodestone who brought Mae into a world of friends and sleepovers and, sometimes, love.
            Like the time she took Mae to the playground behind the municipal building. Spider was already there, swinging from the highest bar in the rusted space dome, jeans hanging low on his hips. When he saw them, he dropped to the ground and snarled out the words to an old song.
            Baaaby, I’m hot just like an oven
            I need some lovin’
            Libby rolled her eyes and laughed, so Mae laughed too.
            When I get that feeling
            I need sexual healing.
            Mae laughed again, harder. That was when Libby took her arm and said it was time to go home. She never brought her to the playground again, but that didn’t stop Mae from spying on the two of them whenever she had the chance. Like today. It had rained all week, which was why Libby and Spider were inside his father’s car instead of behind the turtle climber. It wasn’t Mae’s fault it rained, or that Libby, Angry Libby, chased her into the backyard. Or that Spider grabbed Mae in a way that made Libby even angrier. None of it was her fault.
            Mae looked up, startled, as the back door flew open. A bare-chested Derek ran out of their house, waving the treasured harpoon.
            “It’s okay,” he shouted. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” But, when he pulled Libby out of the pond, even Mae could see it wasn’t.
                                                                                                          
            “Talk to her, Mrs. Peltier. She can hear you.”
            Finola wants to slap this nurse, but settles for ignoring her. It has been eleven weeks since the accident, six since Libby was released from the hospital. Released is the wrong word, of course. Release is something you do with a prisoner who has served his time or a wild rabbit trapped in your garbage can. The prisoner and the rabbit can return to their old lives with grateful enthusiasm. Her daughter, on the other hand, has been preserved like the bones of a saint.
            “You’d be surprised what they hear,” the nurse adds, but Finola tells her she’s done with surprises and leaves the room without acknowledging either daughter.
            Mae sometimes dreams she fell in the pond with Libby, and they are both in that bed, silent ghosts in an angry house. She wishes things would go back to the way they were. Carl says they will, but Mae is pretty sure Old Libby is gone for good. New Libby has skin that’s plucked and raw, and lips too thin to form words or even cover her teeth. She’s always smiling, always, as if she’s happy with the way things have turned out. Mae thinks about putting on Li
bby’s favorite t-shirt and parading around the bedroom, just to hear her sister yell. Or confessing the things she and Spider do together. Maybe she should sneak him in to kiss Libby, who could be waiting for just that—a prince to break this chain of unbroken sleep.
                                                                                                          
            “I don’t know how much more I can take,” Finola says.
            The three of them are sitting around a kitchen table set for four. It’s the first of June, and the start of what promises to be a sweltering week.
            “Hot enough for you?” Mae asks, in the singsong voice of her favorite weatherman. She thinks her mother is talking about the temperature.
            Finola doesn’t say anything.
            “Is It. Hot enough. For you.”
            “Sure, honey,” her mother says. “A real heat wave.”
            Mae wrings her hands, suddenly nervous. It’s important to agree with her mother. That’s what Carl says. But facts are also important.
            “The thing is,” Mae says in her normal flat voice, “we’re not actually experiencing a heat wave yet. Know what? There is no universal definition for a heat wave. It depends on the climate history and average temperature for a particular region.”
            There’s more to add, humidity levels and heat index thresholds, but Carl is shaking his head.
            “Know what else?” Mae asks. “Heat waves cause more fatalities than any other weather system in the United States.”
            Finola gives her a dull look. If she wants to be cruel, if she wants to hurt her remaining family members to the degree she’s been hurt, if she wants to destroy any love they feel for her, she will ask, “Why isn’t Mae in that bed instead of Libby?” Then, she’ll turn to Carl, her sweet, loyal husband of eight years, and say, “Know what? I don’t love you anymore. Know what else? I nearly ran off with a nineteen-year-old.”
            “I can’t do this,” is all she says.
            Carl tilts his head, as if taking dictation from some spirit guide. “It’s very hard,” he says.
            Finola laughs. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
            “No, Fin, of course not.”
            He talks about hope and prayer and miracles. Last week, he read about a woman who woke from a coma after six years.
            “I have a feeling Libby’s going to be fine.”
            “A feeling,” Finola echoes, and decides that as soon as Carl falls asleep, she will go outside and break the backs of every marigold he’s planted this spring.
            “Libby’s getting better. I promise.”
            But she is too busy thinking about all the times he’s been wrong.
                                                                                                            
            Finola spends most days in her studio. She still checks on Libby, but the visits are pitifully brief. Drive-bys, the nurses call them behind her back. She shows up for meals, or at least dinner, which is usually take-out from a local sandwich shop. Carl, though, acts like everything is normal. He discusses TV and homework with Mae, and asks about volcanoes, her newest interest. Whenever he speaks directly to Finola, she stares at her lap as if he is her jailer.
            Mae tries not to think about the fish, but they bloom every morning, like the begonias Carl planted to replace his marigolds.
            One evening, when the three of them are sharing a pizza, Mae can’t hold it in anymore. “Know what, Mom? The fish population is growing.”
            Finola puts her pizza back on the plate.
            “They’re having babies. Lots of them.”
            “Carl, are you listening to this?”
            “Mom, Mom, know what else? The Orandas are—”
            “Mae!” Carl says, in a voice so sharp she jumps.
            Finola pushes her plate away and begins to cry, the sound faint and ashy from all the cigarettes she’s been smoking.
            “It’ll be okay,” Carl says. He puts one hand on Mae’s head and rubs Finola’s back with the other. It takes everything inside him not to cry. He’s known all along that things will never get better.
            Finola wipes her eyes with the corner of a napkin. “No, it won’t,” she says, as if reading his mind.
            Mae feels her chest fill up with something. She burps several times, but the pain is back, pneumonia or a panic attack or something worse. Maybe she really did fall in the pond with Libby. Maybe she has fish living inside her, too.
            “Something’s moving,” she says and points to her chest. “It wants to get out.”
            “Stop it,” Finola snaps.
            Carl pushes the last slice of pizza on Mae’s plate. “Finish up, sweetie.”
            He leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. His stomach, always fascinating to Mae, rises to a spectacular crest, quivers, and falls into dormancy, like the volcanoes in Australia. It’s funny to think of Carl that way, and Mae laughs, but quietly. Finola pulls out her pack of cigarettes, and for once, her hands aren’t shaking. The sweet odor from a barbeque blows through the screen door. Lazy taunts that will result in nothing worse than hurt feelings can be heard from the park behind their house. A neighbor’s terrier barks hysterically, and stops just as suddenly.
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nbsp;           The giant wave in Mae’s lungs that threatened to break, has settled into a harmless tidal pool. She thinks of her real father, who is either living on a beach in Hervey Bay or nearby. He moved there when she was three and forgot he had a family. Men are experts at forgetting, according to Finola. Not Carl, though. He comes back to them every day. Mae wants to climb on his lap and place her head on his stomach so she can synchronize her breathing with his, but at thirteen, she is too old.
            She imagines doing it and is overcome by feelings unnamable for someone with her brain. Libby could tell her. She was the one who named things. Is the one. Mae wants her back, even if it’s Mean Libby, the one who kicks her under the table and swears to Jesus she didn’t. Finola would yell at them both. Later, she would turn to Carl and say, “My mother was right, paybacks are a bitch,” shake her head, and laugh.
                                                                                                        
            Early the next morning, too early for the nurse to be there, Mae slips into Libby’s room. She stretches out on the floor between the bed and the wall and listens to the liquid sounds of her sister being kept alive. It reminds her of family vacations down the shore, of sea glass and almost perfect shells, of tiny gray crabs burrowing into the sand. She and Libby would sit on the beach and let the ocean roll over their toes.
            “Hot enough for you?” her favorite weatherman asked again last night and predicted the onset of an actual heat wave. Mae wonders about the weather on the eastern coast of Australia. After school, she will search the computer for historical patterns and trends and include them in her Volcano Journal. In pencil, of course, because weather graphs might be incompatible with plate boundaries and fissure vents. She could buy another journal, but her mother says she already has too many and needs to pack some away. Mae can’t imagine doing that. She wishes she didn’t have so many things to worry about—Libby, Carl’s gray hairs, the similarity of words like stratovolcano and stratosphere—and at the same time, she is relieved. It would be worse to start each day with an empty brain. Anything could get inside.
            Someone walks into the room. There’s no longer a carpet or comforter or anything that can trap germs, so Mae has a clear view of the floor. She squints in the darkness and recognizes Carl’s feet on the other side of the bed. He isn’t wearing shoes or even socks. Everything about him is quiet. She’s not sure he’s actually breathing. Mae pushes herself up on her elbows to get a good look. He is breathing, but quietly.
            “Carl,” she says, or wants to say. There is something different about him, a careful way of holding himself, and she’s not sure she likes it.
            He picks up Libby’s hand and lets it drop. The fingers are closed, little claws that hold nothing. Mae has secretly blown on those hands, just to watch them open. A reflex, the nurse says, but it’s really a conversation, a private one between sisters. Carl puts his face close to Libby’s as if to whisper something, but doesn’t. Mae remembers the time Finola had to pull her away from the Christmas show at Bloomingdale’s. She stood there long after it was over, hypnotized by the memory of what she’d seen. Maybe Carl is remembering, too. She would like to guide him out of this room and back to life before the accident. When he places his large, soft hand over Libby’s face, she remembers the thing that’s trying to swim out of her.
            “Plastic,” she says, but Carl doesn’t seem to hear.
            Mae stands so he can see her and says it again. “Plastic.
            Carl shakes his head as if she has walked into a dream he’s having. A soft O floats out of his mouth. His hand, harmless now, drops to his side.
            Mae takes something out of the nightstand drawer and presses it into his palm. Carl stares at the plastic toy.
            “A tooth?” he asks.
            Mae nods. She wishes she hadn’t gone back to the pond after the ambulance left. By then, the sky had cleared and a red-tailed hawk circled overhead, warning her away. But she searched anyway. She’d dreamt about returning the whale tooth to the museum amid the cheers of grateful islanders. She’d dreamt of her father being there.
                                                                                                       
            When Carl leaves, Libby’s heart stops on its own. Hundreds of fish come out of hiding and perform a routine too sophisticated for animal or dreaming child. Pirouettes and layback spins, backward crossovers and figure eights. The fish link fins and execute a farewell high kick that reminds Mae of the time Carl took them to New York. After the show, they ate macaroons and praline ice cream in a French restaurant. Finola smiled when she asked for more.
            So many years ago. A lifetime, really.

Terry Mergenthal’s stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Philadelphia Stories, and The Baltimore Review. She was a finalist for The Bridport Prize and The Gertrude Stein Fiction Award. After working in Chicago for a number of years, she returned to southern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and children. She is currently at work on Imbecile, a novel set in the 1970s.



























































By |2018-12-13T20:04:07+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments
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